At first it sounds like the plotline to the newest family movie: injured patient receives exotic pet, friends and family express doubt, film ends with both the patient and the pet living fuller, richer lives. However, for over 150 people in the U.S. over the last 30 years, this is no story.
Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled is the world’s only non-profit organization that raises and trains capuchin monkeys for those living with spinal cord injuries and other mobility limitations. These monkeys provide in-home assistance, carrying out tasks like picking up dropped items and turning on lights, but the group also claims they do much more.
According to Helping Hands, this program “builds lasting relationships between monkey helpers and recipients.” The organization claims that service monkeys offer patients companionship, independence, dignity, and hope when they need it most.
Why not a Guide Dog?
Unlike most guide dogs, capuchin monkeys only grow to an average of six to 10 pounds, making them better suited to life in an indoor home environment. Furthermore, their natural tool use in the wild and high level of dexterity transitions well to assisting with household tasks other helper animals cannot carry out.
Helping Hands also explains that capuchins “have an active curiosity and a natural enjoyment for manipulating objects.” In addition, the organization notes this species undergoes “natural transitions in their living situation in the wild,” helping them adapt to new surroundings and their lives as animal aids.
History and Training
Established in 1979, the program initially received major support from the National Science Foundation, the Veterans Administration, and the Paralyzed Veterans of America in order to find new ways to help veterans who suffered severe spinal cord injuries in the course of their service. This research included the investigation and solidification of all elements of this program, including which monkey species to use and how to train them.
According to Helping Hands, training capuchin monkeys is relatively straight-forward, as they require only “positive reinforcement to help them learn tasks.” They note that “Training is accomplished simply by rewarding the monkeys for doing activities that already come naturally to them.”
Today, the monkeys are born in a selective breeding program at the Boston-area’s Southwick’s Zoo to ensure the best health and personality traits are brought out, as well as to make sure none are taken from the wild. When they are old enough, they then go to live at the Monkey College in Boston, where they learn the tasks and behaviors they will need when they enter a patient’s home. It takes monkeys 18 to 24 months to learn the basic set of tasks and the cost of their education is relatively high, sitting at about $10,000 per monkey.
Nevertheless, Helping Hands is careful not to endorse capuchin monkeys as pets. AnAssociated Press article explains that when these monkeys reach sexual maturity, they “can turn dangerous and destructive.” Wildlife experts agree that these monkeys can violently attack and spread disease. The average pet owner simply does not have the ability to meet all the needs of these animals, which likely have not undergone the training Helping Hands provides.
However, the article also notes that neither the American Veterinary Medical Association nor the ASPCA advise using primates or other exotic pets as service animals, regardless of their training or where they came from. Nevertheless, that has not kept thousands of Americans from purchasing this breed of monkey, particularly now that they are so easy to find over the internet.
The article explains that films featuring these monkeys, including “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Night at the Museum,” have led to an explosion of reckless purchases of these animals as pets. Unfortunately, that has also led to massive numbers of these animals being abandoned after they grow out of their cute juvenile stages. According to critics, those who truly love animals will realize the best thing they can do is to avoid contributing to the ethically questionable ownership of these exotic pets.